In this Talks With Scholars interview, Dr Andy Cheung interviews fellow KEDS tutor Dr Patrick Egan on the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament. This is a specialist subject for Dr Egan whose doctoral studies looked at the use of Isaiah in 1 Peter. This informative interview will be of interest to all students, especially those studying Biblical Theology.
From the perspective of a student or pastor, what would you say is the main value in studying the NT use of the OT?
I think there are two main ways in which a student or pastor would find value in studying the OT in the NT. First, it is important to observe how the earliest church read the OT. Even if modern readers do not find their interpretive practices normative for how we interpret today, their use of scripture in thinking theologically is instructive. They land on some interesting passages and the steps they take from a quotation to the theological argument they make with it is not always direct. By thinking through this, we can gain much in how to think biblically and theologically. Furthermore, their interpretation was not mere abstraction. They had as a goal to comfort and exhort the churches of their time. This is a vital message for today, since the churches of today need pastors who do the hard work of interpreting, of doing good theology, for the benefit of parishioners who have real struggles, challenges, hopes and doubts.
It seems that the topic of the New Testament use of the Old Testament is a subject of great study these days. Is that a recent phenomenon?
The New Testament use of the Old Testament has grown significantly over the course of the last decade or so. That said, it is hardly a recent phenomenon. You can go back to early NT manuscripts and find that scribes marked OT quotations with marginal notes. In the late 1800s, there were some important studies developing the relationship between the Septuagint and quotations in the OT. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a new interest in quotations emerged because now a parallel set of texts quoting the OT could be compared with how the NT quotations and allusions work. I think the more recent wave of studies on this subject have responded to several trends, one being a greater awareness of canonical reading of scripture, another being a burgeoning sense of the literary connectedness of the two testaments and another being a wellspring of interest in biblical theology.
Second, a tremendous value is gained by studying the OT in the NT inasmuch as it looks toward a synthesis of the testaments. The authors of the NT assumed that the OT was relevant to the life and teachings of Jesus, to the mission of the church, and to the hope set before us. That synthesis was already being worked out back then. In modern times, we've tended to separate OT and NT into different areas of knowledge (not to mention separating biblical studies and theology or ethics). By observing the inter-workings of the OT and NT, we gain a strategy for understanding our Bible in a holistic way; of seeing how it all fits together.
So briefly, what did you explore in your doctoral work?
I worked on the use of the OT in 1 Peter. The abundance of quotations and allusions to Isaiah inspired me to emphasize the Isaianic narrative strands at work in 1 Peter: the proclamation of good news (Isa 40 in 1 Peter 1), the suffering servant as an example of Christ and for believers (Isa 53 in 1 Peter 2), the presence of God among his people (Isa 8:14; 28:18 in 1 Peter 2 and Isa 11:2 in 1 Peter 4) and the promise of future vindication (Isa 10:3 in 1 Peter 2 and Isa 8:12-13 in 1 Peter 3). Together, these narrative strands are used in the epistle to encourage, direct and console the churches of Asia Minor.
Does Peter use the OT more than other NT writers? If so, is the reason for that directly related the difficulties being experienced by the churches of Asia Minor?
I'm not sure about the precise statistics, but 1 Peter is way up there in the quotations per verse, comparable to such books as Matthew, Romans and Hebrews. Because it is smaller than these other books, it feels a bit more dense in its draw on the OT. The second question you ask is interesting, because it probes the "why" aspect. Could Peter have addressed the situation in Asia Minor without recourse to the OT? Perhaps. But I think what he observed in the OT was a story line that saw the people of God suffering despite the work of God among them. He also say how the vindication of this suffering was put forward as a future hope. Isaiah was one source for this story. Drawing in many ways upon the patterns of the Exodus, the drama of the exile set up a story line that Peter could apply to the suffering experienced by the churches of Asia Minor.
I'm aware that there are different 'schools' of thought within evangelicalism, nicely presented, for example, in the Counterpoints book, Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament edited by Kenneth Berding and Jonathan Lunde. Which approach do you think is the most appropriate framework for understanding the relationship between the OT and NT authors' intended meanings?
I think there are some very helpful ideas in the Counterpoints book. Lunde outlines five orbiting areas: 1) the nature of sensus plenior, 2) the nature of typology, 3) the larger context of OT quotations, 4) the use of Jewish interpretive practices and 5) whether the NT interpretation of the OT is normative for Christians today. In reality, much that is being discussed in these areas pertains to ascertaining the meaning of the OT within the new context of early Christianity. There is an older framework that attempted to push our modern historical-grammatical mode of interpretation back to the NT authors. In place of the framework, I think there is a growing understanding that something far more complex was at work in the appropriation of the meaning of the OT in light of the incarnation of Christ Jesus.
While the meaning of the text doesn't change, the significance of its meaning becomes nuanced, and certain aspects become highlighted when questions of the first century are brought to bear on the text. Because of this complexity, I think we might be in a better position to say that the NT authors did present a normative mode of interpretation. For one, they honored the OT as authoritative and that its meaning addressed the new situations emerging in the time of the apostles. Today, the OT remains authoritative and addresses new situations in our time. How we go about reading and discerning, then, has become the pressing question of biblical hermeneutics. To return to the question asked, I would say that the most appropriate framework for understanding the relationship between the OT and NT authors' intended meaning is to see that relationship as constituent of a fuller biblical story of God's redemptive work. So, when asked about the larger context of OT quotations, I respond, "Yes, absolutely. The NT authors are quoting texts set within a huge context of God's redemptive story." It may seem obnoxiously evasive, but some of the things we are working on in studies of the OT in the NT lose the forest for the trees.
I'd like to ask about sensus plenior. Perhaps you could give us a quick definition and then tell us whether you think this is an appropriate way of understanding the NT use of the OT?
Raymond Brown defines sensus plenior as an "additional, deeper meaning, intended by God but not clearly intended by the human author." I am quite happy to work with this definition, partly because it is flexible enough to bear the weight of dual meaning (human versus divine) in the same text and partly because it identifies God as the author of that deeper meaning. Brown goes on to fit this into the idea of progressive revelation, where new events in God's unfolding redemptive plan are revealed and new understandings develop. This helps us to picture the situation the NT authors found themselves in. They weren't playing fast and loose with scriptural texts. Instead, they were responding to the revelation of God in Christ. They drew upon the known (the OT) for its explanatory power. At the same time, this new revelation gave them a new lens on the OT, the known now had to become re-known.
Let me ask about some recommended books: first for students who are interested in delving deep into the OT use of the NT, and also some useful works on Biblical Theology.
I think the book you mentioned, Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, is a good place to start. I'd add the volume by Greg Beale, The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts, as well as Steve Moyise's The Old Testament in the New: An Introduction. These three would give a broad overview of the ground covered over the past 50+ years. Two books I really like on Biblical Theology basically explain the story of the Bible. One is The Drama of Scripture by Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen, and another is From Eden to the New Jerusalem by T. Desmond Alexander. Another volume that explores Biblical Theology on a more theoretical level is Scripture's Doctrine and Theology's Bible, edited by Markus Bockmuehl and Alan J. Torrance.
Excellent, they should be very useful for anyone who wants to read more. Now, as we’re finishing, it would be good to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your personal background like where you’re from and what your interests are?
I grew up in the Chicago area. I now reside with my family near Chicago. It's a lively household, with four children. One of my great interests is running. I've run five marathons so far in my life. I have a goal of running a marathon in each of the nations in the British Isles (I've done two so far: England and Scotland). My great passions are coffee, comedy and music. I find these tend to keep life exciting and light-hearted.
Thanks for your time!